Foreign Policy Blogs

Year in Review 2011: When Human Rights “Went Viral”

Egyptian women marching during the January 25 revolution. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy

Many things could be said about the past year, but at the very least it could not be considered boring. Within two weeks of the new year, protests over government corruption in Tunisia ousted its long standing dictator, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. That event, which took many observers by surprise, triggered a wave of protests throughout the region. As the year went on, protests in Egypt overthrew Hosni Mubarak and brought on a NATO intervention in Libya while the Yemeni, Syrian and Bahraini governments responded to discontent in their countries with increasing violence and Morocco introduced a new constitution. Of course such protests were not limited to North Africa and the Middle East; as early as January similar protests against corruption and authoritarianism were seen in Gabon before spreading to Mauritania, Djibouti, Uganda, Malawi, Swaziland and Senegal. Further north, protest movements emerged in Spain and Greece against government austerity measures and high unemployment, while Israelis took to the streets over the summer in record numbers in the name of social justice and protests grew in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. By the end of the year, the Occupy movement broke out in the US and Canada against the large involvement of money in politics and the lack of economic opportunity for the average citizen while large student protests over educational reform broke out in Colombia and Chile. And finally, in December protests against government corruption reached all the way to the doors of the Kremlin in Russia. So numerous and active has the protest calendar been over the past 12 months, it is quite possible to narrate the entire year only in major protest movements and events.

Of course, other events happened in the field of human rights. The drama of last year’s contested presidential elections in Cote d’Ivoire continued into 2011 with open fighting between parties loyal to each of the candidates. Just two weeks after the UN Security Council approved a no-fly zone over Libya, it also adopted Resolution 1975 which allowed the French-supported peacekeeping mission there to use all necessary measures to protect civilian life. Two weeks later, incumbent president and 2010 election loser Laurent Gbagbo was arrested by UN forces in his home, ending the standoff. In late November, Gbagbo was transferred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague following an arrest warrant for crimes against humanity. His transfer means that it is likely he will be the first former head of state to stand trial at the ICC.

Both the UN intervention in Cote d’Ivoire and the NATO intervention in Libya gave the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine a boost. While some debate whether NATO overstepped its UN authorization in its campaign, possibly hurting the effectiveness of the doctrine, these two events illustrated that even the international community can learn from its past mistakes when facing imminent civilian carnage, even if the application of the policy is uneven.

Elsewhere in Africa, the Republic of South Sudan officially became independent in July after a referendum in January that saw over 98% of the population vote for independence. Yet as South Sudan celebrated a new chapter of their own history and the end of a six-year long peace process, the UN declared a famine in parts of Somalia following an ongoing drought throughout the entire region and new violence broke out along the just created border between Sudan and South Sudan.

Of course, disasters – both manmade and natural – were not limited to the Global South. In July, Anders Behring Breivik set off a car bomb in Oslo and attacked a summer camp on the Norwegian island of Utøya, killing 87 people and shocking the normally calm Nordic country. In August, a small protest against police brutality spun out of control and set off four days of rioting across the United Kingdom.

Looking at this brief summary of the past year, it is easy to understand why the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, Navi Pillay, declared 2011 as the year where “human rights went viral.” However not all of year’s events treated human rights kindly. The execution of Muamar Gaddafi at the hands of rebel forces in Libya, and the cheers that came from some corners at the online footage of his abuse at the hands of his captors, reminded us that even monsters deserve compassion and we all have it in us to deny others basic dignity. In the US, the execution of Troy Davis brought the death penalty back into the spotlight, but even a sustained media campaign on the apparent shortcomings of the case against him could not save his life. The year was also not a good one for journalists, as the Committee to Protect Journalist announced that 45 journalists were killed in 2011, with Pakistan being the most dangerous country for journalists this year. And while some claimed 2011 to be the year of social media, that also came with tragic consequences as citizen journalists and online activists found themselves in the crosshairs of various groups, from drug cartels in Mexico to government forces in North Africa and the Middle East.

Finally, while there were many positive developments over the past 12 months, the year ended on a sour note with news that President Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, including the troublesome provision that allows the government to indefinitely detain US citizens in the United States if they are suspected of terrorism. There are many problematic aspects to this provision, not just for human rights but also for the basic principles of democracy and due process in the US. If nothing else, this quiet act at the end of 2011 will give activists a new cause to start 2012 with.

Protester in Bahrain. Photo by Al Jazeera English.

As no Year in Review would be incomplete without a list, here are some of my top picks for 2011:

Most Unexpected event

As I noted at the start, this year has been an incredibly active one for protests, the type of year that probably hasn’t been seen since 1968. Even still, 2011 has been more remarkable in many ways because of the diverse locations where these movements have sprung up and in how they built upon each other throughout the year, aided by relationships forged through social media and increased global communications. While analysts may have suggested that major uprisings or protests were due in some of these countries for a while, I doubt that any of them would have – or even could have – predicted the way these protests merged and multiplied, both online and in the streets. There is no single name for this trend or phenomenon, but that is my choice for most unexpected event of the year.

Most important person or group

Closely related to my choice for most unexpected event, my pick for the most important person or group is actually a generation. Whatever you choose to call them – Generation Y, Millennials, Generation Next, or some other iteration – their presence has been undeniable in shaping major events of the past year. In 1966, Robert F. Kennedy gave a speech at University Cape Town where he memorably stated, “Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. And in the total of all those acts will be written the history of a generation.” After years of being mostly defined by their consumer habits and entertainment choices, this past year saw this generation find its voice against injustice, as well as the courage to work towards a different world.

Book of the year

My choice for book of the year highlights the aborted Persian Spring rather than this year’s Arab Spring. “Then They Came For Me” by Maziar Bahari tells of his months in Iran’s infamous Evin Prison for his journalistic coverage of the 2009 Iranian Election Protests. While his period in prison was Kafkaesque at times, the story also highlights the humanity of the protestors and ordinary Iranians in their search for dignity in a country that they love.

What to look for in 2012…

While 2011 was a major game-changer in some ways, on the other hand I find that my outlook for 2012 is not much different from what I predicted last year. I’m comfortable with that since much of what I predicted for 2010 came true this past year (and being only a year off is fine with me).

Digital rights and what freedom of expression means in the 21st century will continue to be a major human rights issue, especially after the EU quietly passed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Act earlier this month and the possibility that the US House of Representatives will pass the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the new year.

Likewise protests are also likely to continue in 2012. The four countries that managed to overthrow their dictators this year – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen – still face significant battles in stabilizing their governments and bringing about a full democratic transition. Protests and subsequent crackdowns by the government continue in both Bahrain and Syria, with no end in sight for either. The only country in North Africa to largely escape the protests that swept the region is Algeria, but already some are predicting that may change soon. Similarly, the Occupy movement is determined to not fade away in the new year as they come up with new methods of protest even as many of their camps are disbanded. As this past year demonstrated, protests movements in one corner of the globe can bring about new movements elsewhere, so what is in store for 2012 remains a mystery to even the most astute analysts.

Corporate involvement and influence in politics is also likely to be an ongoing issue. This is the central focus of the Occupy movement, but there have been other indications that more people are focusing on corporate accountability as well. In particular, the increasing evidence of Western technology firms selling surveillance equipment to repressive regimes have raised new questions about what responsibility for-profit organization have in the consequences of their products. Elsewhere, there is growing attention on the long term impact that increased involvement of Chinese firms in Africa may have for both political and economic democracy in the region and the growth of human rights. No matter where you look, corporations are facing more scrutiny which in unlikely to go away anytime soon.

In the end, what I am left with in the final hours of 2011 is how much more optimistic I am about this coming year than I was last year. So much has happened in the past 12 months that it can boggle the mind. But while some events were heartbreaking, most of the past year has been uplifting and at times, even inspiring. If 2011 was the year when “human rights went viral” then it is now on us to make 2012 the year when the world finally consolidated those rights and made them count.



Kimberly J. Curtis
Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa

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